Friday, March 11, 2011

When is English not English? (When it´s Maths)

Part of my current role at work is supporting a Chinese boy who moved from China to Spain in July this year and started school in September. When I first met him, the most important task was to assess his ability to communicate in English to give us a baseline to work from. We quickly realized that his communication skills in English were very limited although he had some basic vocabulary.
After a month or so, he had made good progress and I started to realize that he actually had a good conceptual understanding of grammar but a limited vocabulary and his confidence was low. One thing that had been discovered about him though, which he was already aware of and which his entrance test had indicated, was that he is a Maths genius.
Now, I am not a Maths specialist, in fact I have a deep rooted fear of numbers, I can’t pinpoint how or where this happened but I know that I’m a bit scared of Maths and that I have a deep instinctive blank space in my brain when it comes to numbers. I find it difficult to remember my children’s dates of birth and it took me four or maybe 5 goes before I managed to pass my O Level Maths (Thanks mum for forcing me to carry on and thanks to my patient Maths tutor, Mr. Tiplady, who eventually got me through).
It’s completely irrational and I am a functional member of society, I know how much change to expect when I pay for something and if I focus I can pretty much add up my shopping bill as I go along. I even look after the finances in the family but I still don’t particularly like Maths.
So! He has a wicked sense of humour and his English is now at a stage where he can communicate quite effectively in English although he still struggles with vocabulary at times, especially as he is a great thinker and therefore, conceptually, what he wants to say is often beyond the limited vocabulary that he has available to him. And he is still a Maths genius. I have told him that I am inept at Maths and he finds it funny, although in his world, most of the rest of the school are probably inept at Maths in comparison with what he can do!!
We have got beyond the stage of basic grammar, vocabulary and speaking and listening and as he is probably not going to study English in future (as in A level and beyond!) I thought it would be a good idea to help him specifically with his Maths vocabulary…as this is his area of expertise it seemed logical for me to support him with that as well as improving his general English skills.
So, I was ok explaining an angle, horizontal, vertical, shapes an average, addition, subtraction and division….then we got on to the following:
• Inverse proportion
• Median
• In a range of
• Bounds

And that’s when I realized that I am going to have to learn Maths again in order to help him with his English……aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrgggggggggggggggggghhhhhhhhh!
Thankfully we have very helpful Maths teachers at school who can try and explain stuff to me (they’re very kind and not patronizing at all!) and they can also write down the equations for me so I don’t actually have to learn what inverse proportion is but I can just show him the equation and he gets it!

It was very gratifying this week to help him out with a past paper that he had attempted back in October and attained 76%. When we went back to the paper, there were descriptive questions that he now understood and when he asked me what “Diagram not drawn to size” meant, we both laughed as he had thought it meant he was not allowed to draw on the diagrams, so he had been sketching them on another piece of paper to put the angles and notations in!

After descriptions and explanations from me (and some support to me from the Maths teacher), he was able to answer all of the questions and we got the mark scheme to check his answers, he did pretty well! I’ve given him lots of vocabulary homework to check Maths words with my description and the Chinese definition! I’m also making sure he learns what enthusiastic and energetic and beautiful and creative mean because he has the capacity to use language as beautifully as he understands Maths!

He’s hoping for an A* in Maths GCSE in the summer and he will be a candidate for higher Maths next year and possibly an engineering degree or medicine in future. I was always satisfied with my eventual C at Maths O level, but it makes me very happy to help someone else to achieve the A*.


  1. Congratulations! Firstly on developing Li's English so fast, and secondly on conquering your Maths fears! I've taught maths to ESL classes, which I've found so rewarding, and then to ESL students in mainstream classes which is heartbreaking when I can see that they have the prior knowledge but not the ability to recognise when to apply it.

    How did you assess Li's English ability, out of curiosity? I only ask because I took a TESOL course a few years ago that gave me mild heartburn.

  2. Hi Sunni, I "assessed" him by asking him some questions!! I'm not a qualified EAL teacher but I could see very quickly that his vocab was a problem and when I asked him to do some basic writing exercises, I could also see that he had a good understanding of grammar that he had been taught in China! The funny thing now is that, when I explain vocabulary to him, in a Maths question that he previously did not understand, he then becomes very excited and has real 'Eureka' moments when he understands how to do the Maths! Then he excitedly starts to explain to me how to solve the problem, which is hilarious as I have no idea what he's talking about, I have to tell him that he doesn't have to explain how to work it out to me, just work it out on the paper!! We do laugh together though as I keep teeling him that my Maths is improving with his English! It helps that he's a very clever young man with a great sense of humour and the determination to make me understand his stories and jokes, which are often most amusing!

  3. Maths =yuck in my world too Sian! and I haven't thought about Mr Tiplady in so many years...
    It sounds like you've done a great job with Li.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.